Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/April 1893/Free Play in Physical Education
To all the dangers that threaten the health of the child in existing systems of education, the best and only remedy to oppose is the regular practice of physical exercises. This remedy can, however, be efficacious only provided the exercises are well chosen and applied according to a rational method. Here we meet a serious difficulty in the fact that many persons do not appreciate the importance of the choice of a method, and are hostile to changes in the systems already adopted. "It is contended," once said a university dignitary in our presence, "that our children should take exercise, because hygiene requires it. But what bearing has it on their health to make them march this way and that way, play at the bars, or perform in a trapeze? Select for them the most convenient exercise to apply, and the problem of physical education will be by so much simplified."
In order that the reader may judge intelligently concerning the controverted question of the choice of a method of physical education, it is indispensable to cast at least a rapid glance upon the different forms of usual exercises, and to compare their tendencies and spirit. The immense number of bodily exercises, which it is impossible to describe here or even to enumerate in full, may be referred, if we regard their spirit rather than their details, to two methods—the natural and artificial. Exercises in the former method are inspired by instinct, and demand movements very similar to those which one would execute spontaneously if he were left to himself. The method is called play, and constitutes a kind of regulation of acts to which the human being is naturally inclined. The child, for instance, has a natural inclination to walk, jump, run, and throw whatever he has in his hand, and attention has been turned to give the execution of all these acts a purpose that shall make them interesting.
The other method of exercise, called gymnastics, proceeds in a different way. It is more scientific and systematic than play. It does not start from the observation of the instinctive tendencies of the human being, but from the study of the conformation of his body. It does not say the child is disposed to walk, jump, and throw stones; let us therefore give it opportunity to perform all these acts. But the body is divided into so many articulations and contains so many muscles; let us move each of these joints in turn, bring each of these muscles successively into play, in order that all the constituent parts of the human machine may receive their quota of exercise. Gymnastics proper, basing itself on knowledge of the anatomy of the human body, has devised more or less ingenious processes for methodically exercising the muscular groups of each region. It has exercises for the arms, for the legs, the trunk, the head, and the pelvis; for the flexor muscles and for the extensors, etc. There are several systems of gymnastics. The Swedish system is characterized by simplicity of movement and moderation in effort. The French system is conceived on the opposite theory of raising the physical aptitudes of the man to the highest point of development. With this purpose it seeks ingenious combinations designed to make each movement represent a difficulty to be conquered; and it contrives expedients for augmenting the effort of the muscles and invents muscular acts to which the man is not naturally inclined.
The natural and artificial methods have very distinct and very characteristic tendencies. The most commonplace example will permit us to show clearly the divergence of their processes. Put a man before a vertical pole and tell him to climb to the top. Left to his instinct, he will utilize all the means of action of which Nature has given him command. He will hug the pole with his arms and legs, and will use his feet and hands. It is the natural process and the easiest one. But if he is a gymnast he will have no use for his legs. He has been taught to climb poles with his hands alone. This is an artificial method to which no one feels naturally disposed, because it increases the difficulty of the movement. Here, then, we find a marked difference between the two methods—one avoids difficulties, the other seeks them.
The essential character of our gymnastics is, therefore, that it demands much more intense muscular effort than the pupil is naturally inclined to, and more difficult movements than his instinctive ones. It tends, for that reason, to make him stronger and more adroit than it was in his nature to become. It is a method of improvement more capable than any other of forming chosen subjects. It has the faults of its qualities; it perfects the man, but at the expense of hard work of which not all men are capable; it may form choice gymnasts, but it forms very few. If it is applied to physical education, we find very few children capable of executing at first, or without long preliminary efforts, the movements which it calls for. Most pupils are discouraged by the difficulties at the beginning, and those who acquire a taste for it are those who are best endowed physically, the strongest, or precisely those who can do best without it. This select minority I admit acquires superior physical capacity, but weak subjects, or those of any medium strength, find no benefit in the gymnastics, for the simple reason that they do not practice it. Repelled by the difficulties of the beginning, they refuse to attempt new efforts and continue in their first impression, which was bad and discouraging. Through all their life they have an aversion to exercise, because exercise was presented to them in the wrong way, under an arid and difficult form.
Thus, our artificial methods of gymnastics are not favorable to the physical education of children, because they are athletic and not hygienic methods. They look especially for strong subjects to make champions of them, when a good hygiene should look for weak subjects to make strong ones of them. We must not forget that the weak form the large majority of the children of the present generation. Our children, so precocious now in their mental development, are far behind in their bodily growth. They need methods of education adapted to their weak physical aptitudes. This is the capital fault of artificial and difficult methods; they do not bring exercise within the reach of children. They are, properly speaking, methods of "selection." They subject children to a sort of trial, taking the strongest to make athletes of them, but leaving the weakest, or the great majority, delivered to all the physical and moral woes that are derived from want of exercise.
It is obvious that difficult exercises can not be recreative. This is still a great reproach to our gymnastics when we undertake to apply it to children subjected to school work, and who have so great need of amusement and distraction in the intervals between their studies. It is not a relaxation that the brain of the child can find in these methodical exercises, but one lesson more added to so many others. Among the movements of our gymnastics, those which are not hard enough to discourage the child by a long apprenticeship are so destitute of interest that they repel by their monotony. Such, for example, are the "floor" exercises. Forty children ranged in three lines wait with erect body and fixed eye the command of the master. Then all together, at his order, turn the head, first to the right, then to the left. They count aloud one, two, three; and, while counting, extend their arms, bend them, raise them, drop them; then the legs have their turn, and finally the trunk and loins. All these motions are very hygienic; but where is there a place for transport and joy in that cold discipline that fixes the features and effaces the smile, in those insipid gestures of which the slightest distraction would destroy the grouping? Yet, to the pupil, pleasure is not only a moral satisfaction, it is a hygienic element indispensable to his health. Under the influence of constraint and weariness the vital functions languish, nutrition is retarded, the nervous centers grow torpid. To impose on a child exercises in which he will find no pleasure is more than a want of solicitude—it is an offense against hygiene.
All methods of physical education must reckon with the necessity of giving some kind of attraction to the movements, even to the most useful and best-chosen ones. It is interesting, when we travel abroad, to observe the efforts made in different countries to reach this aim of rendering exercise attractive. It is also often curious to notice the ingenuity that is devoted to seeking for singular means of palliating the aridity and monotony of systematic exercises.
The pre-eminently recreative exercise is play. This natural gymnastics brings with it an attraction that animates the most indifferent and gives inspiration to the most phlegmatic. And what a contrast there is between pupils exercising in play and those upon whom a systematic gymnastics is imposed—between English school children, for example, and French! In France, to everybody's sorrow, the children seem to have a horror of motion. Left to themselves, as soon as they are out of the schoolroom, they walk along slowly in couples or gather in groups in the corners of the yard; and they pass the time in chatting, in "philosophizing." Gymnastics is obligatory, it is true, on some days and at certain hours; but a witness of the lesson will be struck with observing that hardly four or five pupils out of thirty execute their exercises conscientiously. The others present themselves in their turn, but hardly outline the movement. The professor incites them, urges them; and they go back to their places after having made an imitation of an effort. In the English colleges no regulation makes exercise obligatory, and every one is free to dispense with it or engage in it at will. But all give themselves up to it with incredible ardor. Weak and strong, young pupils or students twenty years old, all show an equal passion for those plays in the open air, now neglected in France, for which gymnastics has been so unfortunately substituted. To form an idea of the enthusiasm they display one should visit Eton or Harrow, Oxford or Cambridge, and see those immense lawns occupied after lunch by crowds of young men in the costume of the game, dividing into groups, forming into gangs, and organizing their parties without losing a minute. I have still in vision the spectacle of a game of football played in my presence by students of Cambridge. Nowhere else have I ever seen such enthusiasm and such spirit, such disregard of falls and blows. The play of ball as thus practiced might constitute in itself alone a complete means of physical education, so fully does it bring into action all the bodily qualities and all the active moral faculties of the players. What vigor in starting the ball, what agility in getting it and bearing it to the goal! What address also in avoiding the throng of opponents who would bar the passage, and what suppleness in gliding through their arms without losing the precious trophy! And if in the struggle the vanquished champion falls to the ground, we see him rebound like the ball itself, touching the turf and beginning his race more ardently than ever, and forgetting to feel where he was hurt.
This striking contrast between the apathy of French youth and the ardor of English youth is easily explained by the passionate attraction of their games, as compared with the depressing aridity of methodical gymnastics. There is no need of invoking difference of races. In the time when we, too, had our national games French youth were as impassioned with tennis, mall, and barette as the Anglo-Saxons are now with lawn tennis, cricket and football. But the taste for sport was lost with us from the moment the attempt was made to introduce a more methodical and, as it was believed, more perfect form of exercise. The coincidence will not be denied by any one; but there was more than a coincidence in it—there was a relation of cause and effect. If this is still doubted, it will be enough to refer to the revival of the taste for physical exercises that was manifested all at once in our universities when efforts were made a few years ago to introduce open-air sports; and this taste is becoming so decided that some persons are already apprehensive that the more serious studies may suffer by the diversion of interest from them. To the other qualities of superiority of games over gymnastics is added the fact that they are performed in the open air.
Some advocates of gymnastic athletics bring the objection against plays that, while they furnish attractive and easy exercises, their facility itself proves that they do not require a great expenditure of muscular force, and are not, consequently, serious exercises. To show how slight is the foundation for this objection, let us take an ancient typical French game, tennis, and give a summary analysis of it. Going from a gymnasium, where young athletes have been pulling hundred-pound chest-weights, the sight of a game of tennis will certainly not at first give the impression of a "serious" exercise; and one will, perhaps, be tempted to smile at comparing with the effort of gymnasts that of players chasing a minute projectile of twenty grammes with their rackets. Yet the most rugged man, after an hour of this exercise, will be dripping with perspiration, gasping, and will find himself next morning feeling bent all up. One must try it for himself to realize the expenditure of force called out by this exercise, in which the effort is so little apparent. In the exercise of tennis the work is not limited to the motion of the arm in striking the ball. A well-applied racket-stroke requires the bringing of the whole body into action. In the active chase for the ball all the muscles, from the feet to the head, unite in a common effort, or, as the physiologists say, in a synergy, which seems to detach the body from the ground and throw it upon the projectile. The stroke of the racket is a "resultant," or the sum of a series of partial efforts which are evolved at once in the arm and shoulder, the vertebral column and the thighs; and the stroke of the racket in itself does not represent the whole expenditure of force occasioned by the game. To it should be joined the motions preceding it and preparatory to it, or the player's changes of attitude. All those who have held the racket know how rapidly these motions have to be made. In less than a tenth of a second one must look ahead and up to catch the ball on the fly, or stoop to take it on the bound, or bend to one side to hit it a back stroke. In these rapid changes of attitude the center of gravity of the body is abruptly displaced, and equilibrium can not be preserved without bringing a large number of muscles into energetic play. The muscles of the thorax, the loins, and the pelvis contract and bring the bony parts forming the framework of the body into close action upon one another. The lower limbs, without leaving the ground, also furnish a considerable interior labor, the purpose of which is to assure the player a solid footing, a stability essential to the force of the racket-stroke; and even the feet seem to fasten themselves to the ground, with the assistance of the toes.
Thus, in the game of tennis, the exercise is distributed among a large number of muscles, and this fact enables us to explain how the effects of work may be very much accentuated without our being conscious of having made great efforts. In giving racket-strokes we make infinitely less efforts than in raising heavy chest-weights, yet we do not perform less work in a game of tennis than in a practice of gymnastic athletics.
In all natural movements we use a large number of muscles at once, and we sometimes bring into action those which are very remote from the point where the work appears to be localized. Active games constantly tend to the division of the work among a large number of muscles. This is the consequence of their very character of natural exercises. Being copied from instinctive acts of which they are simply the methodical regulation, they all present the same character of causing the human machine to execute much work without demanding much effort from it. The operation of the motions adopted by gymnastics proper is different. That does not tend, in general, to seek out the associations of muscles, called in physiology synergies, but rather to avoid them, with the view of augmenting the effort of the muscles that are brought into play by suppressing the co-operation of the other muscles.
The property of games is, then, to cause the production in the human body of much work without great effort. Now, the hygienic quality of exercise is not effort, but rather work. The more work we do, the more we stimulate the great vital functions, and, notably, the respiration and the circulation of the blood. But, while work renders these two functions more active, effort, on the contrary, restrains them. By a mechanism we can not study here all intense effort reacts upon the lungs, the heart, and the large blood-vessels. When we try to raise a heavy weight, or to break between our hands a stick that offers a strong resistance, we feel the muscles of the breast and the abdomen hardening and violently compressing the lungs, as well as the heart and the large blood-vessels. Respiration is suspended, the blood flows back toward the veins, and we see them swelling on the neck and forehead. This violent pressure is not always without danger.
We have selected tennis, the most celebrated and the most French of games, as the type of our demonstration. All games in which projectiles are thrown, or the ground is skipped over, are but variants of tennis, and conclusions drawn from it are valid also as to them.
There are numerous other simple and easy games which are none the less hygienic. The most elementary of all, the game of tag, which children improvise as if by instinct—as also do young animals—is not less efficacious than the most elaborate sports to stimulate respiration and the circulation of the blood. It is because these games represent, in the aggregate, much work. At each step in running, the child takes from the ground and lifts to a certain height above it a relatively considerable weight, that of the body. Now, we know that work in mechanics is estimated by multiplying the weight of the mass raised by the height to which it is lifted. Though the body is lifted only a little at each step in running, yet as these steps are renewed as often as four or even six times a second, we see what number of kilogrammetres a game of tag a quarter of an hour in length may represent. This considerable work is accomplished without effort, because the legs, the thighs, and the pelvis, which co-operate in executing it, are re-enforced by the strongest muscular masses of the body. But while the "effort" passes unperceived by the muscles in the running child, the "work" makes its general effects plainly felt in the organism. The least attentive observer has remarked how running accelerates the circulation of the blood, and especially how it stimulates respiration and magnifies the heaving of the ribs, which is the essential cause of the bellows movement which draws the air into the chest. We might say that in the running child the organ that works most is just the one that it is most important to develop, the lung.
It would be superfluous to pursue the analysis further. We have seen that games, although attractive and easy, are not less serious exercises than our methodical analysis, and that they are in every respect agreeable to the hygienic exigencies of children.
These conclusions, we know, will raise numerous protests, both from specialists whose convictions they may wound and whose interests they may conflict with, and among amateurs of gymnastics to whom those exercises are dear, because they are agreeable to their abilities and tastes. They are, on the other hand, in harmony with the opinion of the most eminent men who have occupied themselves with education, hygiene, and physiology. Herbert Spencer gives preference, among all the methods of physical exercise, to "free play"; and M. Marey, in his report on the work of the Commission of Gymnastics, of which he is president, points out to the Minister of Public Instruction the inconveniences of gymnastics, which is, in his opinion, "only a makeshift to be kept up till the time when we can find a practicable means of substituting exercises really adapted to the abilities and hygienic needs of the child—that is, open-air games."
It is, however, very far from our thought to suggest that methodical gymnastics should be wholly discontinued. That form of exercise, which is not adapted to children or to very young persons, is excellent for those who have completed their growth, and who have time and taste for developing their muscles to the extreme. Gymnastics is an excellent preparation for the military service, and may be of great aid to those who desire to harden themselves by training to the life of the regiment. But it is early enough to begin it in the eighteenth year—that is, after school studies are over.
In short, artificial and difficult exercises are to natural exercises what, in mental education, the higher instruction is to primary and secondary instruction. Physical education has its "grades" as well as mental education, and we commit an error when we reverse them.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.